Administering India: The Indian Civil Service

To hundreds of thousands of Indians the British Raj was personified by its administrative arm, the Indian Civil Service, explains Ann Ewing, by which the British governed its imperial possession through a small élite spread thinly throughout the vast sub-continent.

The Indian Civil Service was a tiny administrative elite, never more than twelve hundred in number and, until the twentieth century, overwhelmingly British in composition. It was composed of those officers appointed under Section XXXII of the Government of India Act of 1858 to posts reserved for them alone. Officers were recruited by competitive examination at first held only in London but later also in Allahabad and the strength of the Service was restricted to the number 'absolutely necessary to fill the supervising and controlling offices' of the governing structure. The lower ranks of the administration were peopled by a vast army of subordinate clerks and provincial staff, recruited in India to do the more humdrum tasks. But the hierarchy was headed and guided by the well controlled hand of carefully selected ICS officers. These officers held all the key posts: they surrounded the Viceroy, they dominated the provincial governments and they were ultimately responsible for overseeing all government activity in the two hundred and fifty districts that comprised British India.

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